Only once has a South African side won the African Champions League, when Orlando Pirates lifted the trophy in 1995. They played in a semi-final in 2006, and Mamelodi Sundowns reached the final in 2001, but South African sides have traditionally placed little importance on continental competition, seeing games in less than hospitable destinations interfere too much with their domestic schedule. This time it would be different.

Roger de Sá, the Pirates coach, began his second season with an additional task. He was told the Champions League was not a tournament to be taken lightly. In his previous role with university club Bidvest Wits, who only ever qualified for the Confederations’ Cup, De Sá used the continental tournament to experiment and fielded fringe players. The message from the Pirates’ management was that he was to do no such thing with this competition. 

“They see this as a challenge and they always want to go as far as possible. With that one star on their badge, they want a second one and to prove they can win on the continent,” he said. 

The Pirates captain Lucky Lekgwati started the campaign bullishly and with a promise about his own future. “We have a team that is capable of beating anybody on the continent if we stay focused,” he said. “I have also made it clear I will quit soccer if I lead Pirates to Champions League success.” 

Preliminary qualifying round 
16 February 2013, Orlando Stadium, Johannesburg
Orland Pirates 5 Djabal Club 0

“We will beat them with an avalanche of goals,” Lekgwati said before the tie against a team from the Comoros made up of amateurs. Lekgwati also thought it was a good omen that Pirates had drawn an offshore side because “when we reached the semi-finals in 2006, we started the preliminaries with another team from an Indian Ocean island, AS Port Louis from Mauritius.” 

The biggest challenge was the fact that Pirates had never seen the team from the Comoros before. But that did not matter — they beat Djabal 5-0, thanks to four goals from the Zimbabwean striker Takesure Chinyama. Sifiso Myeni opened the scoring and Chinyama did the rest, taking advantage of the opposition’s fragile defence. It could have been more, and Pirates had two goals ruled out for offside. Despite being in complete control, De Sá said Pirates were surprised by the quality of their opposition. “We didn’t really know how they were going to play and they frustrated us at times,” he said. “We wanted more goals but we got the result. I just hope this lead will be enough.”

De Sá seemed oddly irritated by what had been a comfortable win, and two days after the game he was still criticising the standard of the officiating, commenting specifically on the number of times his players were caught offside. “At least now we’ve had a taste of the refereeing,” he said. “Only a handful of our players have been in this competition before and I warned them what to expect. I told them it’s going to get a lot worse. They’ve got to get mentally strong.

“I’m glad many saw it. I don’t think we should accept it because we aim to do better in this competition than we have the past two times. But there’s nothing we can do about it now. If we get through this round it means we have already improved from last season, where we couldn’t make it past this stage.”

In between the two legs, Pirates played two league fixtures, winning one and losing one to remain second in the table, but they were beaten 4-1 by the third-division side Maluti FET in the Nedbank Cup.

2 March 2013, Stade Said Mohamed Cheikh, Mitsamouli, Comoros
Djabal Club 0 Orlando Pirates 4

Without the strikers Myeni and Collins Mbesuma, the midfielders Daine Klate and Oupa Manyisá and a number of other key players, Pirates chartered a flight to the tropical paradise without their assistant coach Tebogo Moloi. He stayed behind in the belief there was “no way Djabal will bounce back” and worked with those who were recovering from niggles. He also went to Swaziland to watch the match between Mbabane Swallows and Zanaco of Zambia, the winners of which would play Pirates in the first round proper. The absences made little difference: Pirates went two goals up in the first eight minutes and doubled that advantage by full-time. Chinyama was among the goalscorers again. 

Aggregate result: Orlando Pirates 9 Djabal Club 0

First qualifying round
16 March 2013, Nkoloma Stadium, Lusaka 
Zanaco 0 Orlando Pirates 1

Davies Mwape was a teenager when he found himself on Pirates’ books in 2005. He never made it into the team, as he was loaned out and eventually let go. As leader of the Zanaco attack, he wanted to use the match to show Pirates what they missed out on and they were well aware of the threat he posed. “I played with Davies,” Lekgwati said. “He is a very aggressive striker, who can shoot from any angle. We just need to keep a close eye on him so that he does not embarrass us.” 

Pirates’ supporters club travelled by bus from Johannesburg to Lusaka, a journey which takes 27 hours and passes through neighbouring Zimbabwe. 

The team was without defender Siyabonga Sangweni and there were concerns over their defence but they had little to worry about. On a pitch which was later criticised for being sub-standard, they were rarely troubled by the home side and Ndumiso Mabena gave them a precious away goal. Their functional style was what De Sá wanted to see more of as the competition went on. “The Champions League is won by heart and not by being flashy,” he said. “If we carry on this way, we can definitely go far.” 

The last two weeks of March saw Pirates extend a lean run in the league to six matches without a win. There were calls for De Sa’s head and the team went into the return leg against the Zambian champions under enormous pressure to produce. 

6 April 2013, FNB Stadium, Johannesburg
Orlando Pirates 2-1 Zanaco

The match had to be moved from Pirates’ usual home ground in Orlando to Soccer City, where the 2010 World Cup final was held, because of a church service. Pirates didn’t seem too unsettled by the surroundings, though, taking an 18th-minute lead through Khetokwakhe Masuku. There was a minor tremor when Musona Mwape was left unmarked to equalise four minutes after the break but Pirates were back on safe ground after Mpho Makola’s free-kick curled into the top right corner of the net with 13 minutes remaining. 

De Sá admitted the side got a “bit of a scare,” when the Zambians got back on level terms but he was happy with the way Pirates controlled the match after that. “We still have a lot of work to do,” he said, “but we’re getting there.” 

A second-round tie against the DR Congo giants TP Mazembe, though, would be a much stiffer test.

Aggregate result: Orlando Pirates 3 Zanaco 1

Second qualifying round
20 April 2013, Orlando Stadium, Johannesburg
Orlando Pirates 3 TP Mazembe 1

All reason said this should have been the end of the road for Pirates. They were hit by a spate of injuries that left them without Sangweni, ManyiSá and Andile Jali for the home leg. With only 17 of their squad fully fit, it seemed they’d be taking on the DRC heavyweights with one hand tied behind their back.

But Pirates went ahead within the first two minutes. Mbesuma provided the cross and Onyekachi Onkonkwo fired home. TP Mazembe equalised but Mbesuma, the Zambian forward who was such a disappointment at Portsmouth, put them back into the lead. He then doubled it from the penalty spot. 

The decision to award the penalty had far wider ramifications than anybody would have thought at the time. A journalist working for the national broadcaster, SABC, Velile Mbuli, tweeted that after the game the referee, Swaziland’s Smanga Nhleko, had been “floored by a vicious punch from a TP Mazembe official.” Later, he spotted police waiting for the official to get onto the team bus so they could question him. He was hiding in the dressing-room. 

None of the officials present knew the identity of the man, Kabila Kanga, and Mazembe denied any association with him. In a letter to CAF, Mazembe claimed Kanga was a Congolese expatriate living in South Africa and was not involved with them at all. They also blamed Pirates’ security for allowing Kanga to have access to the tunnel where he punched Nhleko. 

Given that Kanga was in a restricted area, Mazembe were held responsible for the assault and fined US$5,000 while Kanga was banned from attending football matches a year. 

De Sá remained worried that Mazembe were still in the tie because of their away goal. “It gives them an opportunity,” he said. “If they score two unanswered goals at home, they go through.” But he saw one thing which gave him hope. “I don’t think they are as solid at the back as they are good going forward,” he noted. 

Mazembe received a massive confidence boost between the two legs, beating their arch-rivals V Club from Kinshasa. They also cut the price of tickets for the game by 60% in the hope of drawing a full crowd to intimidate the opposition. Having appeared in the group stage in four of the five previous seasons, they were determined not to miss out. Pirates’ indifferent domestic form went on as they lost to the minnows Chippa United. 

5 May 2013, Stade TP Mazembe, Lubumbashi
TP Mazembe 0 Orlando Pirates 1 

Pirates were full of fighting talk, buoyed by the return of many of their injured stars. “This is going to be war,” Moloi said, the term insensitive given the conflict in the DRC. There was animosity, much of it from Pirates’ hosts and the officials. De Sá had prepared the team for a hostile reception, showing them videos of previous matches played in Lubumbashi. He encouraged them to walk around the stadium when they first got there and take in the crowd’s vibe. He said that before kick-off they “felt no fear.” 

The same could not be said for some of their countrymen. South African cameramen were kicked out of the stadium and some arrested without explanation. The feed to South Africa was cut off minutes after the game started so South Africans were unable to see how their team was doing. 

What they missed was Lekgwati being shown a red card after 35 minutes after kick-off for, as the Pirates head of administration, Senzo Mazingisa, put it “no apparent reason”. Two penalties were awarded against Pirates in the second half but Meyiwa saved both, first from Eric Bokanga and then from Mazembe’s talisman, Trésor Mputu. He could not, though, keep Jean Kasusula out in open play. 

One goal, though, was not enough and Pirates progressed to the group stage with the bruises to show for it. Lekgwati said the way the match was handled was “killing African soccer” while acknowledging that Pirates “came here expecting these things, including poor refereeing.” Meyiwa said the match would stay with him for life: “I will never forget this game, it was tough and tense.” 

But Mazingisá was far more critical of the way his men were received by Mazembe. “The treatment was bad,” he said. “Our technical staff were harassed. Our dressing-room was left wide open. Prior to the start of the game, people here were able to speak English. When the game started, they started communicating with us in French, clearly to frustrate us.” 

Pirates left the country as soon as they could. On his return home, De Sá admitted to Neal Collins, a local journalist, that he was close to quitting football altogether. “I feel a bit like Rambo,” he said. “We expected trouble but nothing like that. I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about it. To be honest, I feel like walking away from the game. If somebody called me and offered me a job outside football I’d take it. But then you calm down and you realise the national pride in our result. Look, what these people did is bad for the game, it’s bad for Africa. Still, we’re through. There must have been a stronger force at work for that to happen.” 

15 May 2013: The Draw

Pirates were unseeded for the draw and were handed what was considered the tougher of the two groups with both Egyptian heavyweights, the defending champions Al Ahly and Zamalek, and one newcomer in AC Leopards of Congo. The South Africans chose to see the positives. Trips to Cairo meant direct flights, while there was something invigorating about the challenge of facing two former champions. “It will help in developing the mental toughness of our players,” said Irvin Khoza, the Pirates chairman. 

“We are also African giants in our own right,” said Meyiwa. “We respect Al Ahly and Zamalek but we are not scared of them. We are going to conquer Africa.” 

Having won just two of their last twelve league games, Pirates finished a disappointing third in the league. [The South African league runs from August to May, and the Champions League from February to November]. There was less of a break for them than usual as they brought forward pre-season training to prepare for their opening Champions League game, against Leopards.

Group stage
Match 1. 20 July 2013, Orlando Stadium, Johannesburg
Orlando Pirates 0 AC Leopards 0

Like Djabal Club, AC Leopards were a largely unknown quantity. Having risen through the ranks quickly in their home country, following a cash injection in 2011, the acquisition of many top players and a stunning run in the 2012 Confederations Cup, which they won, they had a reputation for being gutsy and physical but doing research on them was tricky. 

De Sá gave himself a week to study video footage and determined they were a side that was easily shaken. “We will have to look for a goal early to unsettle them,” he said. “If we allow them to settle, they can cause problems.” 

Being the first match of the season, the contest was surrounded by hype. Pirates were talked up in local media as being the most talented of the eight sides in the competition and near certain to finish in the top two. Orlando Stadium was kitted out in black and white for the group stage opener, save for a corner set aside for the small group of Congolese fans. Those few away fans ended up with more to cheer than the home crowd which watched its team fire blanks despite controlling significant periods of the match. 

Pirates had made a late change to their starting XI. The midfielder Tlou Segolela, who had trained as a first-teamer through pre-season was pulled from the squad because he was yet to sign a new contract. De Sá was informed a few hours before kick-off that Segolela was “not a Pirates player” and that there was a “boardroom issue and they couldn’t come to an agreement.” De Sá selected Daine Klate in Segolela’s place and, at first, it seemed an inspired move. Klate had three chances in the first half, while Myeni was denied only by a goal-line clearance. As the goal failed to arrive, Pirates became increasingly desperate and when Manyisa’s late effort was saved, it became clear that the expected emphatic victory was actually going to be a drab stalemate.

De Sá gave his men a pass mark, but only just. “If it was a boxing match I think we would have won it on points but it wasn’t, so you have to put the ball in the back of the net,” he said. “The guys are a bit rusty but they were still competitive out there and will get better. For our first performance, and at this level, I wasn’t entirely unhappy but we have to do better and take our chances.”

Before the second group game, Pirates signed the promising striker Kermit Erasmus, finalised Segolela’s contract and played their domestic season opener, a friendly, against their arch-rivals Kaizer Chiefs. The fixture is given a twist by the fact that fans select the starting XIs. Pirates lost 1-0.

Match 2. 4 August 2013, El Gouna Stadium, El Gouna
Al Ahly 0 Orlando Pirates 3

With the political situation in Egypt tense, Pirates were uneasy about the prospect of playing in Cairo. “With the political issues, obviously we have concerns,” De Sá said. “What we see on television is a worrying factor.” 

As the game drew closer, the situation worsened. Violence escalated and there were deaths among demonstrators the weekend beforehand. The Egyptian military told Al Ahly they could not host the match at the Air Force Stadium because security could not be guaranteed leading the hosts to seek a postponement. Al Ahly argued that they could not find a stadium with adequate lighting facilities because all the suitable venues were in major cities, where the army had banned matches. And they could not play during the day because it was Ramadan. CAF rejected that request as well as Pirates’ call for the match to be moved to a neutral venue. 

For a few days, it was unclear where the game would be held but Pirates tried to put that uncertainty of their minds. “We must forget about other things,” Lekgwathi said. “We’re not sure about the venue but we must focus on what we will do on the field. The senior players will sit down with the youngsters, motivate them and make sure they are not scared.” 

Pirates were wary both of the crowd and their opponents. They watched Al Ahly’s derby against Zamalek the weekend before their tie and realised just how tough the task would be. Three days’ before kick-off it became a little easier. The Red Sea resort of El Gouna, more than 400km from Cairo, was chose to host the game, with no fans to be permitted. 

De Sá wasn’t sure how his players would react to the silence. “An empty stadium could take the pressure off Al Ahly and help them play better,” he said. “It could motivate their players or demotivate them. Even us. We are used to playing in front of big crowds. It could feel like a training match. I don’t know what it will be like, but I hope it goes our way and it gives us a bit of an edge.” 

It ended up being so much of an edge that Pirates recorded one of their greatest ever victories. They seemed to surprise even themselves when they took the lead after 12 minutes following a nifty one-two between Thandani Ntshumayelo and Mbesuma. Meyiwa saved a penalty and, after Ahmed Abdul Zahar had been sent off for a second yellow in first-half stoppage time, they completed a comfortable win as Andile Jali converted a penalty and Myeni added another three minutes later. It was the first time a South African club had beaten Egyptian opposition away in any CAF competition, while Myeni’s goal was the 100th Pirates had scored in continental competition.

Pirates promptly lost their first game of the league season, against Amazulu. They eliminated former the title-holders SuperSport United from the MTN8, a knockout competition featuring the top eight teams in the country. De Sá admitted the packed schedule was causing him concern.

Match 3. 17 August 2013, Orlando Stadium, Johannesburg
Pirates 4 Zamalek 1

Zamalek were bottom of the group and seemed to be struggling as Egypt’s political crisis went on. “We expect Zamalek to fight like wounded tigers as they are still chasing their first win in this tournament. But we will push them deeper into the mud,” Lennox Bacela said before the game. “Now the other clubs will respect Pirates after what we did to Al Ahly.” 

The striker had netted his maiden goal for Pirates in the win over SuperSport and was brimming with confidence. “I feel good because the pressure of scoring my first goal for Pirates is over,” he said. And when it rained, it poured. Bacela scored the first goal of the match, after being set up by Klate but Shikabala equalised within two minutes. After half-time, though, Pirates ran away with it with goals from Tlou Segolela , Myeni and Klate.

For Zamelek, it was a record-breaking defeat in the group stages and reports emerged of infighting within their camp, with some players reluctant to take the field.

Al-Ahly won in Congo to ensure the group was still open. “Yes we have won,” De Sá said. “But we haven’t won anything. We still might not qualify for the next round despite two massive victories over the Egyptian sides. We still made mistakes and so we still have a lot of areas to work on. We conceded a silly goal after we went 1-0 up and maybe on a different day we wouldn’t have been able to bounce back. We can’t afford to make such mistakes at this level. We also know that going to their home ground in a couple of weeks’ time is going to be difficult.” 

With another trip to the north of the continent looming, Pirates had to play in yet another Soweto derby, this time for the MTN8 semi-finals. They beat Kaizer Chiefs 1-0, with De Sá joking he had told his team to treat their rivals as “just another Egyptian side”. They were given some breathing space with the second leg scheduled for a month later and their league match against Ajax Cape Town postponed as South Africa’s administration tried to offer them as much assistance as possible.

Match 4. 1 September 2013, El Gouna Stadium, El Gouna
Zamalek 2 Pirates 1

Pirates went into the game knowing that victory would guarantee them a semi-final spot. The fixture was played behind closed doors in El Gouna, a “home away from home” as De Sá dubbed it. For Zamalek it was a last chance to stay in the competition and Lekgwati perhaps sensed a change of mood saying Pirates were expecting “a totally different team to the one we beat in Johannesburg”. 

The first game, though, inevitably was at the forefronts of Pirates’ minds. “The good thing is that we are going to this match with a broad understanding of the team we will be up against,” Lekgwati said. “They are not a closed book to us. I’ve earmarked this tournament as a benchmark for myself. Having won all trophies in our domestic league, with the prospect of qualifying for the semi-final, has given me motivation to inspire the rest of the guys and continue fighting.”

Pirates gave away an early penalty that Ahmed Malek converted. Bacela, continuing his rich streak of form, equalised but Salah Soliman restored their lead in their second half. De Sá was unimpressed. “We shot ourselves in the foot today and we were punished,” he said, suggesting the searing heat may have been to blame. His assistant, Teboho Moloi, claimed the team had learnt the value of scrapping. “You don’t always have to play the best of games to win,” he said. We have to apply that strategy in the remaining games because the clubs we play against tend to park the bus at the back, which frustrates our players.”

Match 5. 14 September 2013, Stade Denis Sassou Nguesso, Dolisie
Leopards 1 Pirates 0

Dolisie is only two-thirds the distance from Johannesburg as Cairo but the journey is much more arduous. For a start, there are no direct flights. Until last September, there wasn’t even a route between South Africa and Congo but South African Airways has since introduced flights on Wednesdays and Saturdays to the capital Brazzaville, a city 300km away from Dolisie. With Pirates due to play Leopards on a Saturday and in a league fixture scheduled the preceding Wednesday, they had to charter a flight to their destination, planning to fly in a mere 36 hours before kick-off. 

The day before the match, De Sá celebrated a year in charge of Pirates. His tenure had not brought the league success that had been expected — after two successive titles, Pirates had finished only third — but his run in the continent was keeping him at the helm. De Sá called the job “a way of life” and felt he had adjusted to the challenges of coaching a giant. “You haven’t coached in South Africa until you coached one of the big clubs,” he said. “It has been an unbelievable ride and I have enjoyed every minute of it, even the hard times. This is why I do the job, this is why I coach, for these kinds of opportunities.

“The level of passion from fans, which I can tell you also stretches all the way up into Africa — that was one of the biggest surprises for me — is something I maybe didn’t expect. The brand is just unbelievable. Obviously there is pressure to win, but that doesn’t come from the club’s board or from the fans. It is pressure I put on myself.”

The weight of that expectation was increased when the group was thrown wide open by the Congolese club’s win. Klate and Bacela missed good chances and Dimitri Bissiki scored from a corner to ensure that Leopards moved level with Pirates and Al-Ahly at the top of the group. 

De Sá had described the trip to Congo as the toughest in the group because of the difficult conditions. Pirates had no complaints, though, about how they’d been treated and knew their defeat was down to missed chances. They had gone from potentially being able to ensure a semi-final spot at the halfway stage of the group to needing a win in their final fixture. Lekgwati was embarrassment by the turn around but remained optimistic. “We apologise to the South African nation for the defeat, but we still promise them that the second star is coming,” he said. “All that we have to do is beat Al Ahly in the last game to qualify for the semi-finals. There is no way we will lose to them. We want to win this tournament. Our aim is to feature for the Club World Cup in Morocco in December. We just have to beat Al Ahly at home.” 

Moloi was sure Pirates could still go all the way. “The dream of the second star lives on despite the defeat,” he said.

Al Ahly beat Zamalek 4-2 to knock the White Knights out of contention. For Pirates, victory over Al Ahly at home would see them top the group and play the runners-up in the opposing group in the semis. That would allow them to avoid Tunisia’s Ésperance. If they drew, they would need Zamalek to beat Leopards but if Leopards also drew or won, Pirates would be out. And if they lost, they would definitely be out.

They had one league match before the final group stage game and struggled to a 1-0 win over Polokwane City, a game that hinted fatigue was becoming an issue. 

Match 6. 22 September 2013, Orlando Stadium, Johannesburg 
Orlando Pirates 0 Al Ahly 0

Since the teams had met in El Gouna, Pirates had beaten Zamalek at home but lost two matches away while Al Ahly had managed wins in all three games. The Egyptians seemed back to their best and ready to secure their place as group winners. The match was billed as the most important one for a South African club in seven years, since Pirates had last qualified for the Champions League semis. But for all the expectation, little happened on the field. 

Pirates dominated but could not find a way through the Al Ahly defence. They had two chances in the first half — Myeni shot wide and Klate hit the crossbar — and went into the break to be greeted with the news that Zamalek had come from behind to lead Leopards 2-1 which, if it stayed that way, meant a draw would be enough. 

More chances came in the second half but Pirates lacked a finish. Then the news came through from Egypt: Zamalek had won 4-1 and all Pirates had to do was ensure they did not concede. Bacella and Klate both wasted opportunities that would have guaranteed top spot, but a goalless draw meant both side progressed, Al Ahly to face Coto Sport of Cameroon and Pirates to face Ésperance, who had lost to Al Ahly in the previous season’s final. The Al Ahly coach Mohammed Youssef said he thought that his side would meet Pirates again in the final and that there was no opposition they would rather come up against. His words would be remembered. 


Champions in their own country four years running, finalists in the Champions League in two of the three previous seasons and winners in 2011, Ésperance were not a club to be taken lightly. In their ranks was the highly rated striker Oussama Darragi while they also had four Tunisia and two Algeria internationals.

Pirates had a much lower profile and, worse, there were murmurings of discontent in the camp. Lekgwathi, the captain, had been left out of the last two matches and went public with his frustration, claiming a personality clash with the management — De Sá excepted — had led him to be sidelined. He was called to a disciplinary hearing but did not attend a scheduled meeting with Khoza, saying his father was ill. He did, however, apologise for the comments. 

With the captain a doubt and the team having just been booted out of the MTN8 by Platinum Stars in a penalty shoot-out, Pirates did not go into the first leg with the best morale. “It’s a supreme test for Pirates against the most consistent team in Africa and we are looking forward to the challenge,” De Sá said. “There is so much at stake for not only the club but for South African soccer as a whole.” 

First leg. 5 October 2013, Orlando Stadium, Johannesburg
Pirates 0 Ésperance 0

Myeni, who had been nursing an injury, was passed fit. He could have given Pirates the lead with a header, but it flashed across goal. Bacela also missed a decent opportunity and it was Thabo Matlaba who went closest to scoring, his long-range shot saved by Moez Ben Cherifia, the experienced Tunisian keeper. 

With their focus on attack, Pirates opened themselves up to being caught unawares and found Ésperance were strong on the counter. “Ésperance were going to get chances because we were trying to press the game. They played on that counter-attack,” De Sá said. “But Senzo Meyiwa made a save in the first 10 minutes and after that he didn’t really have to again. We were happy with that. I just think at this level the half-chances we get we have to put away.” 

De Sá stressed the importance of not conceding at home, which he thought would give them an advantage going to Radès, where Ésperance would “open up”.

Maher Kanzari, the Ésperance boss, was disappointed his men had not played in a more attacking fashion. “Pirates are a strong side but 0-0 is a bad result to us,” he said. “I would have preferred to lose 2-1; at least we could have scored an away goal. Both teams played a tactical game but now I must prepare for a tough game at home.” 

A busy program followed for Pirates. They played Mpumalanga Black Aces in the Telkom Knockout, yet another South African club competition, and won 3-1. The defender Siyabonga Sangweni, who was captaining in place of Legkwathi, was stretchered off amid reports he had ruptured his Achilles tendon. The club soon backtracked, saying he would undergo an MRI scan, but confirmed he would not be able to travel to Tunisia. 

The statistics favoured Ésperance. They had only been defeated three times in sixty matches at the Stade Olympique de Radès, a run stretching back to 2001. The last time they had lost there was to Al Ahly in the previous season’s final. In the 13 games since, they conceded just five goals and kept a clean sheet 10 times. They had scored in each of their 28 previous home Champions League matches. They were not going to roll out a red carpet for Pirates and neither was their travel agent.

Travel to Tunisia is not simple. Pirates had to travel via Dubai. They planned to train in Johannesburg on the Tuesday and Wednesday before the match and then fly to the Emirates on Wednesday afternoon. They would only reach Tunis on the Thursday but scheduled another training session there. That would be followed by one practice at the stadium where the match would be played. 

Lekgwathi was not part of the travelling party. The mystery of his exclusion had deepened when he wrote in his column for a local newspaper that “sinister forces at the club” did not want him to succeed. But on the eve of the team’s departure, Lekgwathi assumed the usual captain’s duties of introducing the members of the squad to dignitaries, including the country’s minister of sport, Fikile Mbalula, at their departure function 

De Sá tried to play down any talk of a spat, saying Lekgwathi knew why he was left out and had not protested against the decision. “We’ve got to play those guys we think are ready for the next match,” he said. “Lucky has missed four matches and to go and throw him in against Ésperance is a bit unfair. There are no issues around him being left out and I don’t think it affects the team morale at all. There are no problems at all because Lucky is a good professional and we have spoken about it” 

Second leg. 19 October 2013, Stade Olympique de Radès, Radès
Ésperance 1 Pirates 1

Having faced hostile crowds in Lumbasbashi and Dolisie, Pirates believed they were tough enough to handle whatever awaited them in Radès. “For this match, we really have to be well prepared psychologically, because the home fans won’t make it easy for us,” De Sá said. ‘’We have had it worse in this tournament and I don’t think whatever happens in that match or during our stay in Tunisia will shock the guys.” 

In the end, it was Pirates who stunned the crowd into silence. After Klate threatened to open the scoring in the fourth minute with a free header, it was Rooi Mahamutsa who put the visitors ahead, heading in from a corner after 52 minutes. Iheb Msakni restored parity three minutes later but Mahamutsa’s strike counted for far more. Meyiwa parried a free-kick and was fortunate there was no-one to follow in, but Pirates held on for an away-goals victory. 

A delighted De Sá said afterwards that Pirates simply “love” playing North African opposition because they are usually guaranteed good stadiums and pitches. Had the mood not been so light, his comments could easily have been taken as disparaging to the rest of the continent, as he painted the central countries as unconquerable jungles. “The trip to Congo to play Leopards was always going to be the most challenging. We don’t like those conditions,” he said. “But Ésperance, they a true football side, like Al Ahly and Zamalek.” 

They would again meet Al Ahly, who had won their semi on penalties, the side they said provided them with the best hospitality and the team who wanted to play them in the final. 

History beckoned. The second star shone in the distance. On to Soweto and on to Cairo. 

Before the final, Pirates beat Golden Arrows 4-0 in a Telkom Cup match and drew 1-1 in the league against Kaizer Chiefs. They had only played three PSL games since the season started but the Champions League and the cups meant many were beginning to feel weary.

De Sá promised a few days’ rest before the first leg of the final, focusing on video sessions and tactical training. “I can’t say whether we’ll play well or badly, but the one thing that we know is that we’ll try our best,” he said. “We’re going to give everything we have. These guys will run for 90 minutes plus and give it their best shot. I think we have a 50-50 chance, without a doubt, but when you look at where they’ve been and what they’ve done in this competition, we have to be at our best. Al Ahly are a special side but we’ve got our strengths and we have a couple of things up our sleeves.” 

Support was pouring in from everywhere, including from members of the Chiefs side. “We just have to walk the streets and we get messages of support,” De Sá said. “From the beginning of the competition, we said it was not only about Pirates, but carrying the flag of the nation. This is probably for some of us the closest we’re going to come to representing the nation.” 

For someone like Meyiwa those words had particular significance. Playing second fiddle to Ithumeleng Khune at national level, he saw this as a chance to show what he was capable of. “I told myself that even if I don’t get time to play in the national side, it’s the one chance for me to make my name in African football,” he said. “I want to be one of the best goalkeepers in Africa.”

Moloi called it the “the most important game in the history of South African football after Bafana Bafana won the 1996 Afcon finals on home soil,” and said they team would not give “Al Ahly space to breathe.” Jele, the new captain, assured all South Africans there was no way his team would lose. “We are playing at home and have no business to defend: our plan is to go for a win with goals,” he said. “We want to score goals so that there is no pressure when we go to Egypt the following weekend. We promised the South Africans the second star when we started with the campaign in February, we want to deliver on the promise as early as this weekend.”

First leg. 2 November 2013, Orlando Stadium, Johannesburg
Orlando Pirates 1 Al Ahly 1

Rows of cars snaked their way to Orlando Stadium throughout the afternoon. Kick-off was at 2030 but traffic was already backed up by around 1700. The atmosphere was part-celebration, part-anticipation, with the familiar vuvuzelas providing the soundtrack, while a number of Egyptian fans had come dressed as Pharaohs. What was once a competition South Africans regarded with indifference had become an event they were desperate to win. 

Their hopes were dented severely in the first quarter of an hour as Mohammed Aboutrika, who had announced he would retire after the final, curled in a free-kick to give Al Ahly the lead. Pirates pushed forward but they were found defensively wanting and Walid Soliman had what would have been a second away goal incorrectly ruled out for offside.

Again and again Pirates created opportunities, but as in so many previous rounds, they struggled to find the final touch. The home crowd grew restless, sensing hope was fading. And then, in injury time, Thabo Matlaba struck from long range. Pirates had had a number of shots from outside the box, but this one caught Sherif Ekramy unaware and snuck into the bottom right corner. The celebrations made it seem as though there would be no second leg. 

The equaliser meant Pirates had made their job slightly less difficult in Cairo and shown their fighting spirit. Many had given up after Aboutrika’s goal but Pirates kept going. Although the missed chances remained a source of regret, De Sá said he “could not have asked for more” from his men. “We kept on trying, kept our patience, we didn’t just play long balls and kick and pray,” he said. “We controlled the game. We showed character and kept fighting to the last minute. We’re in with a fighting chance. I know it’s going to be very difficult - there’s no doubt about it. But we’ll certainly have a go, and the team I’ve got certainly have the character to try and turn it around.”

He promised Pirates were ready for the final push. “So the way we’ve got to go to Cairo is to play the way we normally do,” he said. “We’ve done it before. The mountain keeps getting higher and higher. But I really don’t know what the limit is of this lot - they keep going. So let’s see how far we can go.”

Aggregate result: Orlando Pirates 1 Ésperance 1 (Pirates win on away goals)

Al Ahly’s Mohammad Youssef was similarly pleased with the result in Johannesburg. “They pile on pressure up front but leave gaps at the back, which we tried to expose through counter-attacks,” he said. “I want to salute my players for doing exactly what they were asked to.”

He also warned Pirates that Al Ahly were a far better side than the one they had beaten in the group stage. “The last game was played in our fasting month of Ramadan, and we played at 2.30pm in 45°C heat. And it was not our home ground,” he said.

Permission had been granted for the return leg to be played in Cairo, rather than at El Gouna, and Al Ahly had been assured their fans would be allowed into the match. The 30,000-capacity Arab Contractors Stadium was chosen as the venue, but Al Ahly wanted the game moved to the much bigger Cairo International Stadium, where they could fit 70,000. The pitch at the International Stadium was deemed in better condition but the military were still concerned about large gatherings so the teams had to settle for the poorer pitch. 

The surface was a concern for Pirates but even more troubling was the absence of Jele and Jali through suspension. That reopened the door for Lekgwathi, who had been out of action for six weeks. De Sá confirmed the Pirates veteran would travel with the team, would be part of the starting XI and, to end things off as they had started, would captain them. Having Lekgwathi back added to the emotion of the event. De Sá maintained he had never had any problems with Lekgwathi and it was clear he was pleased to be able to bring him back.

The sentiment grew. De Sá remembered his father, who died of a heart attack during the coach’s playing days, and told the media he would have loved him to be at his side now. “I’ve learnt to live with him not being here but there are just times when I miss him,” he said. “It was his birthday last Saturday, and there I was going into one of my biggest matches as a coach. You can imagine just how great it would have been for us to share those special moments.”

South Africa’s sports ministry held a departure function for the team on the Wednesday before their flight, wishing them well and instructing them to come home with the cup. The winners of the CAF Champions League take home US$1.5 million, while victory means participation in the Club World Cup which has a participation fee of $500,000. The African champions were drawn against the Asian winners: win that and reach the semi-final and that figure rises to US$2 million.

Second leg. 10 November 2013, Arab Contractors Stadium, Cairo 
Al Ahly 2 Orlando Pirates 0

Two hours before kick-off, the stadium was overflowing. Journalists had to fight their way through the crowds, terrified they would not make it through the chaos in time for kick-off. Once inside, they found supporters climbing over the walls trying to get in and others sitting anywhere they could find space, including on top of the scoreboard. 

As more people streamed through, the media had to be evacuated from the press box and the South African journalists found themselves seated in the players’ dug out. It was the only space for them although they were assured they would be moved to a special area half an hour before kick-off. 

When Pirates came on to the field to warm up, they were stunned by the noise. They walked around the ground and then stood in a huddle. Was it fear? Was it solidarity? Were they completely overwhelmed?

Perhaps it was a combination of all three. They kicked off with green lasers providing the lighting as supporters shone them on the opposition players throughout. Their own fans, who numbered three, were given a private section in the main stand, sealed off by the military. The chanting was constant, sometimes low and droning, at other times much louder and more aggressive.

Pirates had a clear chance in the first half as Klate crossed for Segolela, who headed wide. Pirates had shown attacking intent but at the break it was goalless and tensions were running high with players having to be separated. 

Al Ahly began the second half more positively and when Abdullah Said’s deflected shot fell into Aboutrika’s path, the veteran poked home. He ran through the military barricade and towards the fans, allowing them to share in his success. Bacela could have equalised when he rounded the keeper but blasted his shot across the face of goal and, with 12 minutes remaining, Abdel-Zaher finished matters off with a second.

Sherif Abdel Fadil received a straight red card for a foul on Klate with six minutes to go but by then Pirates’ race was run. They’d gone toe to toe with the best on the continent since February, and their lungs were at bursting point. When the final whistle blew, Al Ahly’s joy bubbled over and they carried the trophy as close to the fans as they could. A few of them hung back to shake hands with their South African counterparts. The two teams had formed friendships and those were worth preserving.

Aggregate result:  Al Ahly 3 Orlando PIrates 1

After 10 months, 70,000 kilometres of travel, 91 hours in airplanes and 16 matches across the continent, Pirates had nothing but battle scars to show. The best team had emerged as champions. And the second best? They had learned lessons that will probably last a lifetime.